NEWSWEEK: Women live longer than men because they are less prone to heart disease and smoking-related illnesses due to modern lifestyles, rather than any biological difference, a new study has found.
Researchers found that heart disease was responsible for as much as 40% of the ratio increase in male to female mortality, while smoking contributed about 30% of the increase.
The study used data from more than 1,700 birth cohorts across a 135-year-period from 1800 to 1935 and looked at 13 developed countries, including England, France, Italy and Spain.
Today, women can expect to live longer than men in every country in the world. According to UN data from 2013, the global average life expectancy was almost 4 ½ years longer for women at 71 years compared to men at 66.5 years.
However, the research suggests this gap was not always the case, but that the phenomenon of excess adult male mortality – men having generally shorter lifespans than women – emerged at the start of the 20th century.
“It is common belief that women have always lived longer than men, which basically means that men have higher mortality than women, but what we found is that this trend of women outliving men for a large number of years is actually a fairly recent phenomenon,” says Dr Hiram Beltrán-Sánchez, the study’s leading author, told Newsweek.
Heart disease was identified as the major factor in the excess adult male mortality in the 20th century. The study found that, among those born between 1880 and 1919, heart disease and stroke accounted for more than 40% of the increase in the male to female mortality ratio at ages 55-80.
The Heart Research Institute estimates that almost twice as many men die from cardiovascular diseases than women in the UK, with one in every five men succumbing to heart and circulatory diseases compared to one in eight women.
Dr Beltrán-Sánchez, a professor at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), identifies diet and genetics as being the main factors accounting for this heightened male susceptibility, and stresses that diet is the more important of the two.
“Particularly in the 1900s, men tended to eat more saturated fats, which are more related to developing cardiovascular events,” he says, citing England, Denmark and Norway as countries where this difference was particularly pronounced.
The World Heart Federation lists a number of risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease, including hypertension (high blood pressure) and physical inactivity. However, genetic factors such as family history and ethnicity can also play a significant role.
Overall, the study found that mortality rates for both men and women decreased during the 19th and 20th centuries, as modern medical advances and lifestyle changes meant people began to live longer.
However, after 1880, the researchers found that female mortality decreased 70% faster than male mortality. The study reveals that the excess adult male mortality occurred particularly in the 50-70 age bracket and was fairly similar across all countries studied.
Smoking contributed 30% of excess male mortality between ages 50-70 from 1880 onwards. According to World Health Organisation (WHO) data from 2010, the global rate of smoking is more than four times higher in men than women, with 40% of men smoking compared to 9% of women.